(Not) home for the holidays

Increasingly, families are getting away - together - during the Christmas season.

In the Schallert household, Christmas is something to look forward to this year. The family - mom, dad, teenage daughter, 20-something son - are forgoing the last-minute wrapping and cookie baking for deep-sea fishing and sunbathing in the Florida Keys.

Their trip marks the start of a new family ritual: visiting exciting places at the holidays. With the passing in recent years of grandparents who loved Christmas, and the increasing burden of hosting the holiday themselves, "It just seemed like a good time to start a new tradition," says Jon, the Schallert patriarch, who owns a consulting business in a suburb of Orlando.

Shunning the family hearth at the holidays for a beach or a cruise may sound like something Scrooge would do. But it's a choice more Americans are making.

Nancy Strong, owner of Strong Travel Services in Dallas, says that holiday bookings have risen "at least 8 to 10 percent" over the past two years. People are putting more stock in family time since Sept. 11, 2001, she adds, and are changing their holiday traditions to make sure time spent together is enjoyable.

By freeing relatives from the hosting duties, and by traveling to a "destination spot" away from distractions of the office and local friends, families may be striving to strengthen ties that can loosen in today's more scattered, mobile society, experts say.

"People want to travel as a group, they want to be with their family," says Kathy Falkensammer, owner of Prestige Travel & Cruises/American Express in Las Vegas. "It's new - I would say two to three years ago it was a little bit different," she says.

Transition times in families - when kids grow older, relatives die, or siblings get married - often trigger changes in traditions. But for many families, ditching the homestead doesn't mean ditching the Yuletide cheer. They often bring trees, ornaments, and Grandma along on their adventures.

Sharon Polk of Lenexa, Kan., is amused when she remembers the time she froze lasagna for 13 and packed it on ice in a suitcase. "I went above and beyond," she says, recalling the lesson the family learned from previous holiday trips that nothing is open when you arrive on Christmas Eve. On another trip they brought a small artificial tree, and even a keyboard to accompany their Christmas Eve carol singing.

Creating different kinds of memories

Ms. Polk, her mother and three siblings, and assorted spouses and children have been taking vacations together at Christmas every other year since 1994.

The trips were the idea of her mother, Edith Lutze, who has footed the bill for their trips to Disney World, to a resort in Wisconsin, and on a Caribbean cruise. She impressed upon her children and grandchildren that she wanted to make some memories with them. "My husband has been dead for 32 years," says Ms. Lutze, from Cleveland, Wis., "and I wanted to get the family together."

Hotels and resorts are doing more to woo people during the holidays, offering special events - such as fancy parties and splashy Santa arrivals - to make the experience feel more festive, says Mike MacNair, owner of MacNair Travel & Cruises in Alexandria, Va.

Strolling carolers serenade passengers on cruise ships this time of year. "It's one of our most popular periods," says Princess spokeswoman Susanne Ferrull.

And down in Orlando, the land of Mickey is decked out with ornate Christmas trees and parties - and a coating of fake snow. "Christmas week absolutely and historically has been our busiest week of the year," says Rick Sylvain, Walt Disney World Resort spokesman.

This year, Nicholas Wolaver and his parents and sister will be having Christmas dinner at a hotel for the first time. In October, Mr. Wolaver and his sister, Loraine, were dreading another "ho hum Christmas in Oklahoma," and wanted to give their busy mother a break from cooking. So, they convinced their parents they should celebrate instead in Denver, where his sister works as a chef.

"This is the first time we've done something sort of different. We're excited about the unknown elements of it," says Wolaver, a public-relations executive from Atlanta.

In the past, one of the family's big decisions was whether to put their tree in the den or the bay window. "This year," he says, "the decision is: Are we going to have dinner and then go ski, or are we going to have dinner and go visit the Olympic Training Center?"

Is this a worthwhile tradition or not?

That people are altering their usual stay-at-home plans could be a sign that they are trying to break away from the pressure to produce the perfect holiday gathering, suggests Barbara Fiese, chair of the psychology department at Syracuse University. It's a good idea to review your traditions from time to time, she says.

"One of the ways you define a ritual is it's something that you look forward to and anticipate.... I often tell families, if you find that there's something that you dread and that you don't want to do, find a way to avoid it, because [dread is] the opposite of healthy ritual," she says.

The burden of hosting the holidays is one reason Mr. Schallert and his wife decided to try the new approach. They also found that it is good "bait," as he calls it, to get their kids to spend time with the family. "It's a lot easier for us to convince them to juggle their schedules and take a significant amount of time off to go to a more exotic location than to just come home," he says with a laugh.

While he and Wolaver were successful at convincing their families to try something new, not all holiday travel hopefuls are.

Lori Mayfield, a freelance writer from Los Angeles, wanted to use her longer vacation time at the holidays for trips to exotic locales. Her family wasn't keen on the idea. "In the same way we can't decide when we're together ... what TV channel to watch, we can't decide on the same vacation we might want to go on together," she says.

When Ms. Mayfield didn't join her mother and brothers for Christmas for the first time six years ago, they viewed it as a slight. Now, "it's accepted, at least."

It softens the blow that she's going to faraway places such as Africa, India, and Nepal, which require quite a bit of time to reach and to explore.

She involves her family in her trips, bringing books about the places she's visiting to their Thanksgiving gatherings and asking people what they'd like her to bring back. And she has a new tradition with her mother: She buys Christmas ornaments for her from whatever country she visits.

Those who do bring their families along say traveling together can be stressful. But at least you're in an appealing location, says Polk. Her family has found a way to remember the good times on their seasonal trips. "We always gather for a family photo, so we have this ongoing family history as recorded at our various holiday destinations. It's exceeded everybody's expectations."

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